Monday, November 1, 2010


Just a quick question about the dark doctrine (i.e., the doctrine of double effect). I agree that Thomson's Loop Case makes it hard to defend the DDE on its standard understanding, but as a logical point, if the DDE is understood as saying only that there is a moral difference between effects intended and foreseen or that it's prima facie wrong to intend an evil means in the pursuit of some end, doesn't it survive that purported refutation? Yeah, it's permissible to turn the car at the guy with the intention of hitting him, but that's consistent with the obviously correct thought that it is prima facie wrong. And so that's consistent with the thought that one wrong arises because of the agent's intentions. Is there some reason that explains why the DDE is taken to be an absolute principle or is this just some historical quirck?


Ben said...

I'm not sure that weakening the DDE does much to save it from the trolley. For we can run a largely parallel argument with prima facie wrongs, too.

So: is it prima facie wrong to turn the trolley in the Loop case? Maybe, but if so it doesn't seem to be obviously more wrong than it is in the default Switch case.

But then it would seem that the putative wrong in the Loop case wouldn't be something that the DDE could explain, since the Switch case would yield a similar wrong without the bad intention.

Clayton said...

Hey Ben,

I agree that it doesn't seem obviously more wrong, but I do worry that someone sympathetic to DDE can say that our intuitions about comparative wrongdoing are less reliable (and also worry about the evidence from absence as the best I could say is that I don't feel the pull towards the claim that there's a difference and can't say I find it strongly intuitive to say that there's no difference there).

If we don't like cross-case comparisons, I suppose we could try to construct a more complicated loop case and try to test the DDE directly. But this raises another problem, which is that it might be that the moral difference a bad intention makes when ranking options which involve causing death, the moral difference the bad intention makes is relatively negligible and would seem intuitively irrelevant in the way that, say, considerations about losses of toes do in trolley cases. One thought is that the loss of a toe in a trolley case can't matter in cases of life and death, but that's consistent with the thought that they matter in other places (I think Kamm suggests something to the effect). While I share the sort of intuitive outlook of someone who doesn't count toes when lives are at stake, I think it's crazy to deny that the loss of toes has no moral significance (and crazier still to think that whether it matters that a toe is lost depends upon whether lives also happen to be on the scale).

So, maybe intentions are like toes. They matter a little.

[Fwiw, I'm not in love with the DDE but I worry that it can survive in some form. I'm interested because I'm interested in figuring out whether it's better to say that it's false or better to say that it's truth doesn't matter to any of the things people say the DDE settles.]

Ralph Wedgwood said...

I completely agree that it is best to interpret the DDE (as e.g. Warren Quinn does) as implying only that it is worse to bring about a bad consequence through executing an intention to bring about such a bad consequence than to bring it about as an unintended effect of one's action -- and not as implying that it is always absolutely impermissible to bring about such intended bad consequences. (Indeed, I am an enthusiastic defender of this more cautious version of the DDE.)

I am also inclined to think that this more cautious version of the DDE is implicit in the criminal law. The criminal law seems typically to treat intention merely as an aggravating factor, i.e. as a factor that increases the gravity of an offence (as it is with murder, at least in England). There are only a few cases in which intention actually forms part of the statutory definition of an offence (e.g., giving a gift to a judge is perfectly legal, unless it is done with the intention of influencing the judge's exercise of his or her official functions -- in which it is of course a bribe).

So I think it's just a historical quirk. The Catholic moral theologians got fixated on the idea of using the DDE as the core of their teaching about the ethics of killing, and then secular moral philosophers just followed the Catholic theologians in this weirdly narrow interpretation of the doctrine....

Clayton said...

Hey Ralph,

That's interesting about the role of intention as an aggravating factor. I wonder if something like that is right for the moral case as well. Intuitively, it seems to intensify wrongs at the very least.

I'm on the fence right now about the DDE. Have to say that the criticisms of it that I once found utterly persuasive have lost a great deal of their force. Can't recall offhand, have you written on this?